“Free, Free Palestine!”
I used to lead the chants at protests as a teenager, but I was never entirely sure of what they meant. Of course, I knew my history. I knew that in 1948 the state of Israel was established leading to the expulsion of 100s of thousands of Palestinians to villages and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. I knew that many more had fled the country, creating a diaspora of Palestinians larger than the amount of Palestinians that remained in Palestine. I knew that it seemed that at the slightest flinch from Hamas that Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip with F16s and drones, raining missiles from the skies over a strip of land that was already described as the largest open-air prison in the world.
I knew that I am Lebanese-American and that though our treatment of Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon is hideous, we have more in common with Palestinians than many Lebanese seem to acknowledge. I knew that the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) once occupied the southern part of our country and like to remind Lebanon of that fact by occasionally bombarding it with missiles and F-16s. In 2006, horrified by Israel’s most recent assault on Southern Lebanon, I wrote letters to the neighbors about the events that transpired, killing 1,000 and displacing thousands of others and put them in their suburban Californian mailboxes because I felt like I had to do something.
I was very naïve then.
Still, although big brown eyes, an affinity for brine-soaked olives and a seething hatred of the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) affiliated me with our Palestinian neighbors to the south, the reality is I grew up in the free world, far away from the missiles, bombs and sniper rifles of the IOF that made my skin cringe. I was born and raised in the United States and the idea of a country that was under “occupation” and how that meant that it was “not free” was entirely foreign to me, no matter how many books I read or protests I attended.
So I went to Palestine.
To get to Palestine, you have to go through Israel—this is part of the point of an occupation: border control. To get past the Israeli border control, you cannot admit that you are going to Palestine, or, in their reluctant words, “the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.” An Arab name, physical appearance or stamp in your passport is enough to tip them off, and hold you and interrogate you for many hours. One of my friends dared to mention that her family was from Palestine and was told that she was not co-operating and given a shortened, two-week visa—even though she was there to spend time with her mother who was very sick. Others who mention Palestine are detained over night and put on the first flight back to wherever they came from in the morning.
Israel doesn’t like it when Palestinians who left try to come back.
Israel—or “48” as many Palestinians prefer to call it, an homage to the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948, and a political choice not to acknowledge the state of Israel—is distressingly beautiful. Eternal sunshine and rolling hills cascade through the landscape on the way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, not to mention the glistening turquoise Mediterranean Sea that calmly laps against its coastline.
But Palestinians who live in the West Bank cannot come here without permission from the Israeli authorities—even though it is their homeland. These permits are extraordinarily difficult to obtain, expensive and can be denied or revoked—even when they can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. In some cases, Palestinians need to be treated in hospitals in Jerusalem—often, these hospitals are more advanced, and have more specialists. It isn’t that hospitals in the West Bank are incapable of developing the medical technology; it is that these kinds of technology are barred from entering the West Bank due to the occupation.
However, Palestinians are often denied the necessary medical permit to cross the checkpoint—and thus cannot go to the hospital, even though it is only thirty minutes away. Many West Bank Palestinians have been kept from having essential operations that could have changed—and saved—their lives for this reason.
Meanwhile the West Bank is kept behind the Separation Barrier—or, as it is more accurately and acutely referred to, the Apartheid Wall. This barrier, which in some cases is a 14-foot high cement wall that allegedly extends along the Green Line—although there is evidence that it puts technically Palestinian land on the Israeli side—has divided farmland, cutting off the landscape from view and casting shadows over Palestine. Sometimes it feels impossible to have a Palestinian vista without the Wall—and every ugly thing that it symbolizes—slicing through it.
It is dotted with watchtowers where Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) snipers wait for Palestinians to “act up.”
Although there are points of passage—“checkpoints”—in the Wall, Palestinians with West Bank ID cannot cross through without a permit. Often times, even with the proper permission, Palestinians are turned away or repeatedly harassed until they are allowed to cross through.
The West Bank doesn’t look like Israel—or, “48” as I prefer to call it too—though the rolling hills that are the signature of greater Palestine are still present in their dramatic glory. However, outside of Palestine’s beautiful nature, it is cities and refugee camps—mostly still covered in rubble that has yet to be cleared and rebuilt from the First and Second Intifadas that devastated it in 1987 and 2000. The roads are unpaved and uneven. They once were, but during the intifadas they were destroyed with the IOF’s bulldozers while Palestinians were in their homes, under curfew. Because of its live museum of destruction, there is lots of empty space and few permanent addresses in the West Bank. When bombing, raids and occupation feels like a constant, or a once constant that could return at anytime, the idea of permanence changes.
Most of my friends who live in the West Bank have never seen the Mediterranean Sea—even though it is only an hour-long drive away from Bethlehem and Ramallah. Adding insult to injury, many of their families were expelled from the seaside cities of Haifa and Jaffa, which they only know through old, fraying photographs. Even though these cities are only two hours away, they may as well be on the other side of the world.
While Israelis watch the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea, Palestinians in the West Bank watch the sunset over the Apartheid Wall.
So, you ask, did I get to see my family in Lebanon?
I know, I could have gotten two passports. But here is the thing—I don’t want to play the Israeli game. I have no interest in legitimizing their occupation of Palestine, their closure of the border with Lebanon and their demonization of Arabs throughout the region—and working within their system without challenging it arguably plays their game.
Once upon a time, not too long ago—in 1948—four buses left every day from Nablus to Beirut. The train tracks that connected 1948 Palestine to Lebanon still go across the border, even though there is now a fence that separates the two countries and the border is closed. Now it is me staring at frayed, discolored pictures of the Haifa-Beirut bus of the 1940s—standing in the sea in Haifa in the north of Israel, staring at a shadowy coastline to the north that has to be Southern Lebanon, so painfully close, yet so frustratingly far away.
I am dreaming of the day that I can take this road trip. Like so many, I am dreaming of the day that I can write about it in the future and not the conditional, I will instead of I would. No crossing to Jordan, flying to Beirut—no dealing with the Israeli border, or the Israeli authorities whatsoever. I would get my hands on a car, make a mean mix CD for the journey. It wouldn’t take that long—just four, five or six hours, depending on where I started from. Maybe I’d start from Nablus, or maybe I’d start from Haifa. It wouldn’t matter because there would be no checkpoints, no uncertainty—no allowances for if it took 30 minutes, 2 or 4 hours depending on whether or not the soldiers arbitrarily chose to detain and interrogate me, a regular occurrence when you look possibly Palestinian in the West Bank. There would be no soldiers. Because there would be no occupation. Because it would be over.
Someday I will write this in the present tense. I am.
Photo by John Juddy, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.